Chemical engineering students tell environmental stories with digital media

January 31, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A video opens with the scene from the film “Goodfellas,” where gangster Henry Hill is enraged to learn that his wife, Karen, flushed drugs down the toilet during a police raid. But suddenly, Henry’s voice is no longer actor Ray Liotta — instead it’s dubbed with a Penn State student’s. And Henry is no longer angry about flushing illegal drugs he planned to sell, but about prescription drugs being flushed because of their negative effects on aquatic life.

No, this isn’t an alternate director’s take, but part of a video created by chemical engineering seniors Mikaela Roper and Brandon Leidy for CHE 497: Chemical Engineering and the Environment. Taught by Stephanie Velegol, associate teaching professor of chemical engineering, the course focuses on how chemical engineering and environmental engineering can offer solutions for sustainability, waterway protection and other environmental concerns.

The idea of assigning 400-level engineering students a video project may seem surprising to some, but for Velegol, the assignment was the perfect opportunity to provide students with an independent way to explore environmental topics.  

“I wanted to give the students opportunities to explore some topics that were of interest to them,” she said. ”But I also wanted them to have a little fun and showcase their creativity.”

While Velegol required the videos to be short, several minutes each, and to be on an environmental subject, the project had no other constraints. There was no limit on how they could be created, or what they could include, as long as they were not violating copyright rules or included offensive content.

“Students are motivated when they have autonomy, and these videos allowed for that,” she said. “I was amazed at how different all the videos were from each other — some students had animation, others used clips from TV shows and movies like "Goodfellas" and "Law and Order" and so on. People don’t always think that engineers are creative but they are, and this showcased their creativity and communication skills.”

In all, the class created 22 videos on a wide variety of environmental topics. Chemical engineering seniors Spencer Wallace and Courtney Poorman chose ocean acidification caused by climate change. They paired video clips and images with data graphs to showcase how the ocean’s decreasing pH impacts food supply and the global economy. The result was a complete picture of how ocean acidification adversely effects society.

“We hear about climate change and how it is such a prevalent issue but there are other effects and consequences to climate change that we don't really think about it,” Wallace said. “The lowering of pH of the oceans because of climate change is an example. I think that is a huge one that affects us greatly, and we wanted to get the word out about it.”

Some students chose subjects that relate to their career choice. Phillip Szostak, a chemical engineering senior, said his future career is off-shore oil drilling engineering, and his group created a video on the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster. His groupmates include chemical engineering seniors William Buchanan and Mark Jones.

“I was very interested in the background of the accident, especially what critical mistakes were made,” Szostak said. “So I did the research and presented my topic in a relatable and understandable way.”

The students used a variety of tools to create the videos, taking advantage of Penn State’s multiple media resources. Tools included the One Button Studio, a simple and intuitive video recording studio, and the Media Commons, which provides media creation support such as sound recording booths, video editing stations, and assistance from on-site consultants.

To accompany these resources, Velegol invited Catie Grant, a lecturer in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and director of CommAgency, a student-run media production agency, to speak to the class. Grant began by encouraging students to think about what they like and don’t like about shows and videos. Students highlighted the importance of good development of characters and humor.

Grant explained that during the video production process, students needed to think about characters, impact and how to structure the story. She explained that for a short video, these components play a huge role, as it is necessary to hook the audience within eight seconds or less.

“We talked a lot about the importance of story, and what makes a good story — engaging characters; what is the impact/why your audience should care; and having a clear beginning, middle and end to their story,” Grant said. “And with characters, it isn't only people, but even the concepts and science they are featuring — they are characters as well.”

Grant said that knowing how to produce a simple video provides these engineering students with an advantage as they begin their careers.

“For me the answer is pretty simple — these students have the potential to make a huge impact on the world, but people have to know about what they are doing,” she said. “Having these students understand how to tell the story around their work, and its impact, gives them an advantage in everything from proposals and presentations to research dissemination.”

The students valued Grant’s input, sharing that her expertise provided them with additional insight into video creation. 

“There might have still been some entertaining videos, but a lot of people wouldn't have tried different things and would have just done simple voiceovers over a static PowerPoint slide,” Alexandra Wright, chemical engineering senior, said. “Because of what she [Grant] said about needing a hook at the beginning, that gave us inspiration to be more creative.”

Many of the students agreed with Grant that understanding how to produce a video and communicate engineering via a visual medium, is something that will be useful in their careers.

“If you work in industry, when your company is doing publicity you can help since you have this video creation experience,” Andrew Cleek, a chemical engineering junior, said. "You could work with the company’s communications people to create an informative video based on your area of expertise.”

Along with career applications, some students felt the video project inspired them to share their expertise with the public more. For Austin Pollock, a chemical engineering senior, that meant realizing how important communicating their engineering knowledge could be for the greater good of society. 

“I would say the biggest takeaway from the video project for me is it's important that people who have technical, science and engineering backgrounds to get involved in social and political movements,” he said. “Those are the people who really know the subject. If they [STEM experts] can reach the public and share their knowledge on related subjects, that will be beneficial for everyone in the long term.”

Last Updated February 01, 2019